William Melchert-Dinkel (pictured), a former nurse in Minnesota, served a year in prison for encouraging two people (who did commit suicide) to commit suicide. Yesterday, the state supreme court said that what he did was not a crime.
The particulars of Melchert-Dinkel's case are even worse than they sound: he not only used the internet to encourage two people— a 32 year-old man in England and a 19 year-old woman in Canada— to kill themselves, he also "posed as a young, suicidal, female nurse and tried to persuade the victims to hang themselves while he watched via webcam." That is odious human conduct by any measure. But was it criminal?
The Minnesota Supreme Court said no, writing that "the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide." From the Wall Street Journal:
Certain speech is beyond First Amendment protection, such as fraud, incitement of a violation of the law, and speech that plays a key part in a crime. The court rejected the state's contention that Mr. Melchert-Dinkel's words fit those exceptions. Suicide isn't illegal in Minnesota, so his speech couldn't have incited a crime or been integral to criminal conduct, Justice Anderson wrote.
Here we have an example of a case in which the details of an individual's conduct may be bad, but our notions of justice and morality cause us to defer to a good, larger principle. In what other sorts of cases might this framework apply? Discuss in the discussion section below.